SOUDERTON — Just as parents, students and even the school districts themselves wait for the final decisions on how school will resume in a month, so does the Bean Bag Food Program.

“If students return, we'll continue with the program the same as we have in the past as much as we possibly can,” said Donna Halteman, the program coordinator. “If children are not going to school and they're working from home, then we have a few ideas of how we can still continue to get the food to them.”

Whatever the situation is, “we'll find a way to get this food out to the kids because it's just so important,” she said in a telephone interview. “They need this nutrition to keep going, so we'll find a way to get it to them.”

The Bean Bag Food Program, which provides weekend meals for students in the Souderton Area School District, started in January of 2016 with 20 bags of food for students at E. M. Crouthamel Elementary School, Halteman said.

It now averages about 200 bags a week, with the bags going to each of the district's six elementary schools and Indian Crest Middle School, she said.

“Each year we tend to grow a little bit more and add another school or two on, so this year, we're hoping to add the Indian Valley Middle School and also the high school,” she said.

A different group of 10 to 15 volunteers each week pack up the bags Thursday mornings at Zion Mennonite Church and the bags are then distributed to the schools which hand them out as the students are leaving for the weekend on Friday afternoons, she said.

“We try to keep all of that food kid-friendly, so it's easy to open, it's easy to prepare. At this point, there's no refrigeration required, no stove top preparation. It's something that if a first grader is taking the bag home, it's something that they could prepare themselves if they need to,” Halteman said. “We try to keep it as nutritious as possible, high protein, low sodium, low sugar, but yet provide food that the kids like and that they'll enjoy.”

When schools are closed for an extended period, such as over the Christmas break, additional food such as a full jar of peanut butter and jelly along with a loaf of bread is added to the pack, she said.

Students receiving the meals are generally ones in free or reduced price lunch programs at the school, but could also be in homes that don't qualify for the school meal programs, but are having hard times and could use a little assistance, she said.

The decision on who can receive the meals is left up to school district personnel, she said.

“They have the information on the students and we let them make the call as far as who qualifies,” Halteman said. “We don't know who the students are, their names or anything like that.”

The Bean Bag Food Program is given information about the gender and grade level of participating students to be used in things such as providing free reading books, she said.

When the schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bean Bag distributions continued for the next few weeks along with brown bag lunches provided during the week through the school district, she said. After the school district lunches ended, the Bean Bag distributions changed to a grocery bag distribution in partnership with Penn Valley Church in Telford and Indian Valley Faith Fellowship in Harleysville.

The last of those distributions was June 26, Halteman said.

At that point, the number of people coming to the distributions was dropping slightly and those doing so were given information about at least eight other food sources in the immediate area, she said.

While it was a difficult decision to end the grocery bag distributions, it gave Bean Bag the time to work on planning for how it would resume the weekend meal program when school begins again, she said.

“After 13 weeks and 2200 bags of food, 1100 gallons of milk and thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables this season of giving has come to a close. Yes, we will sincerely miss our guests and our schedules will feel empty but it is time to stop, reflect on what has been accomplished and consider what still needs to be done to stop hunger in our community. The Bean Bag Food Program is NOT going away, we are preparing and praying about what the next season of giving will look like,” the Bean Bag Food Program wrote on its Facebook page.

“Studies show that children who receive nutritious food perform better in school, have less illness, less mental health issues and as adults are more involved in their community. No child in our neighborhood should go to bed hungry due to the lack of food,” Halteman wrote in emailed information for this article.

When she's talked in the past about it, people often didn't believe there were hungry children in their own neighborhood, but COVID-19 has raised consciousness of the issue, she said in the phone interview.

“The last few months have certainly brought that issue, that concern about having enough food in everyone's home, to the surface and in that sense, it's a good thing because now we can start to really address it and help the people out who live right down the street from us,” Halteman said.

The average cost of the weekend meal packs is $10 each, totaling about $2,000 per week or $80,000 for a school year under the current distribution levels, she said. If the two additional schools are added, the costs will increase because of the additional meals being provided.

The non-profit Bean Bag Food Program is operated as one of the Zion Mennonite Church programs, she said.

Donations may be made online through the church's website, zionmennonite.org, or by mailing a check to the church with the memo line marked Bean Bag Food Program or BBFP.

The program does not receive any government or large corporate funding, she said.

“It's individuals, it's families, it's small businesses that are all contributing here and making this program possible,” Halteman said.

Any non-food expenses are covered by another donor, she said.

“We couldn't do this without the support of our neighbors,” she said, “and 100 percent of all those funds that come in go toward purchasing food.”

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